The last column I wrote for Lancaster Farming was about 45 years ago — 1975 — when I was the editor of this publication, which was even then becoming an institution in the farming community. It was a perfectly fine job, but 1975 was the year I quit.
I abandoned the comfort of steady employment because I had always wanted to freelance. I’ve heard similar stories from people who wanted to farm and just went ahead and did it. It’s true, I know, that if you want to start farming you need things like land, a tractor and an understanding banker. All I needed, and had, were a 35 mm Minolta film camera and an IBM Selectric typewriter. I know it’s harder to grow 100 acres of corn than it is to pound a Selectric, but it was still a tough call.
In 1975, I was 34 years old and getting on in years (ha!). I was thinking maybe I never would freelance. Then a couple of opportunities presented themselves. One was to write a monthly newsletter for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. Another was an invitation to contribute to Successful Farming magazine. So I jumped into a 20-year adventure that took me coast to coast and border to border at the behest of publications, corporations and institutions. The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives was an important client for a while. There were other ag clients along the way.
My peregrinations were somewhat tethered to a part-time job at the Lancaster Sunday News, which required me to be home every Saturday night. I did a lot of general assignment and police reporting for the Sunday News. There were a few farm stories, too, most notably during the earliest days of bovine growth hormone and embryo transplants in dairy cows.
Saturday nights at the Sunday News got old after about 10 years, so I spent the next untethered decade freelancing. That was still interesting, but it wasn’t as much fun as it was the first time around, nor as lucrative. And around age 57, I gave some serious thought to retirement. Trust me folks, especially you youngsters who haven’t signed on to your company’s 401(k)s, that’s about 35 years too late to start thinking about retirement.
And if you’re a young farmer thinking that if you take care of the land the land will take care of you, my advice is to double check your thought processes with a trusted banker, accountant, financial planner, trusted family member, husband/wife (for what that advice is worth, coming from a guy who waited more than three decades to start thinking seriously about it).
Anyway, as I looked into the future, on the cusp of old age, I saw nothing but a deep black hole, a moneyless pit of despair.
At the urging of a friend, I found a factory job. It was at the Pepperidge Farm plant in Denver, Pennsylvania. The job required me to work 12-hour shifts, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday night, and every other Saturday night. At least it wasn’t EVERY Saturday night. People who knew me well predicted I wouldn’t last a week at the job. I was there for 10 years and about two weeks. I learned every job in the department, I was in constant motion, the machines that packaged the little goldfish were decades old and prone to misbehavior, there was a lot of paperwork, there were people who mostly got along but sometimes didn’t. I was asked many times how I endured the boredom of factory work. My reply was that I looked forward to the boring nights, which were few and far between. And those little bitty goldfish helped considerably in my retirement goals.
(At this point, I need to interject that I planned this column to be about my excitement over webinars and virtual meetings. But once I started down this train of thought, I couldn’t get it off the rails. Next column, I’ll do webinars.)
When I retired from Pepperidge, I knew I needed to do something, preferably during the day, and preferably not full time, and preferably having nothing to do with budgets, meetings, editors, art directors — especially art directors (forgive me if you’re one, but you folks are picky, picky, picky) — deadlines (especially deadlines), no nights and weekends.
About that time, I saw an ad for a part-time reporter for Lancaster Farming. How could I resist? I applied. I interviewed. I got the job.
That was 11 years ago. I knew I was going back to deadlines, meetings and having an editor.
There have been three editors since I returned to the fold, all thoroughly professional newspaper people, all of whom have been supportive of my part-time role. Several months ago, our newest editor suggested that staff members, if they so wished, could fill this space with their own musings. I so wished and it’s a nice perk.
Another perk is that I’m able to be a small part of a magnificent crew of journalists who could basically tackle any subject, whether or not it relates to agriculture. My schedule requires very few nights and weekends. And — drum roll — no art directors.
The best perk of all, though, has been the many opportunities I’ve had to get out and talk to Lancaster Farming readers, the tillers — and non-tillers — of the land and the businesses and institutions that help them do their essential jobs.
Thanks for having me back.
Dick Wanner can be reached at rwanner@lancasterfarming,com